Armed With A Thousand Pens by N. Jay Jaffee
Look at a photograph
as you would read a piece of poetry:
both are mirrors of consciousness.
Abortive, lean, and to the point,
it identifies the essentials
of visual and human emotions.
A poet with a camera is armed
with a thousand pens,
each one forming imagery—
poetic lines in endless
A photograph is a poem
to be read and re-read many times,
or cast aside,
never to charm the heart of human experience.
Poetry, not painting
forms the closest bond with photography.
Both develop pictures in a language vague
Poems are fragments of word-thoughts,
photographs are fragments of vision-illusions,
which catch the conscience of all.
Early New York (1890-1930)
The years encompassed in these three decades were years of tremendous growth in New York City. In 1898 New York became Greater New York which included five boroughs. Immigrante flocked to New York in droves until the Red Scare of the twenties. Neighborhoods were in constant flux, and housing was often poor for those many who were fighting for a place in the land of opportunity.
The city seemed at once to be both dehumanizing and exhilarating. New Yorkers witnessed and/or suffered through the Triangle Fire which occurred in a garment sweatshop which provided no fire protection, and hired children as young as seven or eight years of age. World War I affected New York directly as two million pounds of ammunition were blown up near the Statue of Liberty; New Yorkers were sure this was the work of German saboteurs, although the allegation was never proved. And yet, at the same time, the New York environment was producing and encouraging Jazz muscicians in Harlem, Irving Berlin, Eugene O’Neill, Babe Ruth, O. Henry, and Charles Lindbergh. New York then was both chaotic and stimulating. Once again one is reminded of the paradox or duality of such an environment. Perhaps it can best be explained in terms of images of light and dark. New York could be gloomy, foreboding, menacing; New York could also offer flashes of insight, warmth, and hope. The poetic and photographic works which will be studied in this section reflect vividly New York as a sometimes light, sometimes dark world.
Photographs by Alfred Steiglitz reflect the ambivalent feelings New Yorkers must have experienced during this period. “The Hand of Man” depicts a dark, sinister-looking locomotive emitting billows of black smoke in an environment devoid of human beings. The viewer sees only silouettes of nondescript buildings, telephone poles, and a barren land. Light images appear in the tracks which are hopelessly criss-crossed, confusing, and incomplete, and in the sky which is patterned with low-hanging clouds and appears to be beckoning one even as one knows it is unattainable. As one looks at this photograph, one feels that man “doesn’t count” or perhaps doesn’t even exist anymore having been swallowed up by the very technology he created. The mood is dark, sinister, and the world seems hopeless.
In marked contrast to “The Hand of Man” are two photographs which depict a “light”, resilient, creative New York. “The Flat Iron Building” is a photograph which denotes qualities of creativity and optimism. Steiglitz himself referred to the photograph as “a picture of New America still in the making”. It was a building started from the ground, but also from the top.” It reflected “amazing simplicity in its tower. It combined lightness with solidity”.
The Flat Iron Building is depicted in conjunction with nature in Steiglitz’s photograph. A tree in the foreground echoes its very shape. We feel that man is able to create that which rivals nature in beauty. Clearly then this photograph celebrates the achievemente of the New Yorker—achievements which might gladden and inspire all Americans.
In “Icy Night” Steiglitz once again photographed nature (trees) as a part of his statement of New York. The viewer sees a picture of a frigid night through a walkway lined with trees. The path has been plowed and footprints are visible in a newly fallen snow. The Path recedes into the depth of the photograph where it is met by beautiful and brilliant city lights. This too is a positive photograph which reflects a city which is always alert and watchful of its inhabitants. One feels that man is resourceful, controlling, and vital when one looks at this photograph.
Poems written during this time period also depict the duality of the city experience. The frustration of city inhabitants is poignantly revealed in “Factory Windows Are Always Broken” by Vachel Lindsay. The reader can’t help but realize that dehumanization may cause city dwellers to turn on themselves (in a sense) to destroy the industrial complex upon which they depend. These are people who cry out for spiritual renewal; “No one throws through the chapel window/ The bitter, derisive stone.” The poem illustrates a world which is out of control; “Something or other is going wrong./ Something is rotten . . .”
Two poems, “Sky Signs” by Frederick Mortimer Clapp, and “Brooklyn Bridge at Dawn” by Richard Le Galliene, reflect in some sense the achievements of man. Although one is reminded of the high costs of achievement in both poems, the beauty of New York and man’s qualities of resilience and creativity are celebrated. Both poems reflect a shadowy almost dream-like New York. They take place in the shadowy twilight of sun-down, and in the quiet glow of dawn. The times are magical and special. This is the city of dreams and dream-like visions. So the bridge is “Frail as a gossamer, a thing of air/. . . Who would dream such softness . . . is wrought of human thunder, iron, and blood?”
The sky signs offer “pearly rows of lamps . . . sky signs of silver gilt, like pale fireworks threaded on a mesh of wire/ begin to ripple and fling,/ over and over and over again, kittens that play with the skeins of stars . . .”
New York in the Thirties
New Yorkers faced dire circumstances in the early thirties. The crash had occurred and the city was enmeshed in a depression the likes of which it had never seen. The building boom of the twenties came to a stop, and completed buildings such as The Empire State Building had office space which stood empty for years. Many New Yorkers were unemployed having lost their businesses. Many families doubled up in small apartments as rents could not be paid. This was a city of homeless women and hungry children. The presiding government of the early to mid thirties was corrupt, and parasitic hoodlums preyed upon businessmen who somehow had managed to stay afloat. At this time the city was a dirty, poor, and unhealthy environment for many of its inhabitants.
By the late thirties, however, hope once again returned to New York. LaGuardia came to power overthrowing corrupt Jimmy Walker and his entourage. LaGuardia was able to root out gangsters and restore New York’s economy through a new surge of growth. The building of a “new” New York took place; jobs were available and New Yorkers witnessed a radical change in the city. People would never forget the tragedies they had witnessed, and the “new ” New York, although welcomed, produced ambivalent feelings. Old New York buildings were perceived as being dwarfed by the new more non-descript architecture. New Yorkers must have recalled nostalgically the days of an older, slower New York, and hoped that they would be able to keep up with modern day complexities.
Photography and poetry of the thirties reflect the hopelessness of the depression years. The “new” New York phenomena was often perceived by artists as a time of extreme rapidity of change, and resultant disorientation among New Yorkers was often expressed. This feeling of disorientation might be likened to the feeling produced in the aftermath of an amusement ride. One is affected by unusual motion and speed; the result is a feeling of dizziness or loss of control. It would take time before New Yorkers felt firmly a part of their changing and fast-paced environment.
Steichen’s “Homeless Women: The Depression” was created as an advertisement for the Traveler’s Aid Society. Many young, old (jobless) women, unable to contribute to their families’ food supplies, were forced to leave home, and turned to New York as a refuge, Steichen’s photograph captures the hopelessness of this situation; the tragedy of this time is poignanatly revealed in the faces of these women who, against all odds, were able to maintain at least the image of human strength and dignity.
The universality of the depression is expressed by Stichen through the broad spectrum of age groups he chose to photograph. The baby, teenager, middle-aged woman, and elderly woman are depicted—each reflecting the reaction to poverty within her own frame of reference. Thus an old woman expresses a resignation with reference to death. Young women appear angry. The young child is bewildered.
Perhaps the most striking example of Steichen’s genius, with regard to this photograph, is the positioning of the women. They fill the frame both vertically and horizontally. One feels the enormity of the repercussions of the depression. The women depicted are prototypes of the vast amount of women who found themselves in the same situation. These are women who knew no direction. Each literally faces a different direction in Steichen’s composition. There is no comfort among them, and there is no communication between them. These are people who have no answers and are unable to express hope.
Steichen’s use of lighting heightens the image of human dignity in the face of adversity. Each face is illuminated; the souls of these people appear to be strangely removed from the surrounding environment.
The theme of motion and speed and resultant disorientation is perhaps best expressed in Steichen’s “The Empire State Building” and “Rockefeller Center”. Steichen’s radical use of double exposure expresses the feeling of rapid change through the motion it depicts. “The Empire State Building” reflects a “maypole dance”;
the photograph is startling, pleasing, and yet, also bewildering. It is a photograph the viewer must simply “go with”. Viewing the photograph is an experience in itself. Thus the photograph is an active representation rather than a passive one. The viewer is drawn into what must have been the feeling of the time. “Rockefeller Center” is a montage of several units which works in a similar way (to “The Empire State Building”). The photograph expresses the feeling of growth and rapid change by capturing it. The workmen or builders are eeriely part of a scene of building placed upon building. One feels the building of modern, abstract structures will never stop. Man is clearly a part of the motion; he appears to be caught in the speed of change.
Poetry written during this time period also reflects the themes of depression, human dignity, and disorientetion. Muriel Rekeyser’s “Boy with His Hair Cut Short” captures the tragedy of joblessness. “He let his head fall, meeting her earnest hopeless look”. The environment, which surrounds the two children of this poem, is modern and precise. “The arrow’s electric red always reaches its mark, successful neon!” However, the modern world of movement and noisy communication—“A neighbor’s radio sings, stocks, news, serenade . . .”
offers little for those who see the magic of the modern world but somehow cannot connect with it.
Elizabeth Bishop’s “letter to N.Y.” captures a feeling of disorientation which is the result of over-stimulation. “Suddenly you’re in a different place/ Where everything seems to happen in waves . . .” “Most of the jokes you cannot catch.” “The songs are loud, but somehow dim . . .” This is a world which seems to defy understanding, and man is caught in a maze. (“. . . .driving as if to save your soul/ Where the road goes round and round the park.”)
New York in the l500’s
The fifties and the sixties were a time of continued building in New York City. The big push was for office space, and New York created skyscraper after skyscraper—many in the same mold. The United Nations decided to meet in New York, and John D. Rockefeller made land avallable for its building site. New Yorkers accepted the honor of being chosen as “the capital of the world” calmly, perhaps reluctantly, for while money was poured into office buildings, the U.N., and LincoIn Center, little money (by comparison) was spent on housing. The city’s effort to eliminate slums made the housing shortage worse, for urban renewal found housing for only one third of those people who were displaced.
By the 50’s-60’s New York was astounding in its size. A New York newspaper reporter wrote: “Whatever any other city has, New York has more of . . .” And New York continued to be a mecca for immigrants. A great influx of Puerto Ricans entered the New York mainstream after air service was established between San Juan and New York. Thus the face of the city continued to change. During the 50’s-60’s the city found itself at least in part resposible for maintaining its poor. The welfare system was in full swing.
Of course, New York enjoyed its heroes during this time,—as it had before. Names such as Jackie Robinson and Joe Namath are remembered. Leonard Bernstein created “West Side Story” which sought to express the tragedy of prejudice, and depict the pressures of big city life. Jackson Pollack, one of the “abstract expressionists” of the “New York School”, created a painting of rythmic motion (“Number 1”) which captured the feeling of tremendous energy the big city projected.
Perhaps this time period may best be described as schizophrenic. While the American dream was being realized in the areas of science, business, and art, the dream had failed in the area of social welfare. Technology had improved while human relationships had worsened. The big city meant prejudice, crime, insensitivity, fear, and alienation. In many ways the indlvidual was losing. Many poets and photographers of this time were concerned about this loss.
Two photographs by Gordon Parks illuminate our awareness of the loss of the individual. “Invisible Man”, with its very title, speaks to an uncaring alienating society. The photograph shows only the head of a man with hands grasping the ground immediately in front of him. The man could be emerging through a man-hole. The photograph is ambiguous; the man is surrounded by a dark, foggy background. Yet, the message is clear. The individual is unimportant; the city has all but buried him. Parks’ portrait of Malcolm X depicts prejudice and blind hatred. Malcolm X stands holding a newspaper whose headline concerns the murders of blacks. Man is against man. The American dream of man’s unalienable rights is destroyed. Some men are deprived even of the right to live.
Photographs by N. Jay Jaffee also are concerned with the “invisible man” or the loss of the individual. Many of his photographs reflect the lost presence of man. Thus “Livonia Avenue, Brooklyn” shows an empty chair with a sign above it—“If you believe in credit—I lease/loan me”. The background consists of a door off its hinges with a tattered jacket tacked to it. The dignity of man is lost. Man is reduced to begging for—or selling himself. The wording of the sign raises the question of man’s opinion of his worth.
During the 50’s-60’s the Beats emerged as a new breed of poets. Their poems acknowledged the failure of the American dream. While the Beats were not primarily concerned with political revolution, they refused to go along with “the way”. In other wonds, unlike others of this time period, they would not live with the pretense that everything was okay. Many of their poems depicted the ssordidness of this time period. They sought to transcend the society of which they were unwillingly a part; they felt they could “let things go by uncovering them”.
Thus Ginsberg raised a
“Howl” against the cautious talk of the times. Gregory Corso in “Eastside Incidents” depicted the violence born of an alienating society. “. . . those mad Valenti kids who killed my cat with an umbrella . . .” “I see them now . . . getting the chair/ I see them now/ but they aren’t there.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti speaks of the loss of the American dream. “The poet’s eye obscene by seeing . . . the surface of the round world.” “. . . fata1 shorn-up fragments/ of the immigrants’ dream come true/ and mislaid . . .”